“Social workers who go into private practice aren’t real social workers.” This was told to me by a social work professor and reiterated many times during my graduate studies. Jokes about never being able to pay off student loans, driving beat-up and unsafe cars, and earning just enough to make ends meet were constant during my time in school, and to be honest, continue today when I tell someone I’m a social worker.”
by Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, LMSW
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For those unfamiliar with social work, social work is helping people meet both basic and complex needs, emphasizing those who are “vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”
Social workers can work in mental healthcare settings as psychotherapists, in schools to help advocate for children with special needs, as professors in colleges and graduate schools, and in nonprofits to help with advocacy and fundraising efforts.
When I finished my graduate studies at one of the best schools of social work, I was thrilled to get a job offer within days of graduating. But, as my peers told me, I was one of the lucky ones. Not only did I get a job where I lived, but it also paid more than a typical “limited license stipend.” In the first two years of graduation, most social workers work under a limited license until they accrue enough working hours and sit for their social work boards. During that limited license period, it’s common to be paid far less, either through low salaries or with monthly or quarterly “stipends.”
But when I got my first paycheck? I was earning less money than I did as a waitress.
Guilt, anxiety, and shame consumed me. I felt like I’d squandered my financial privilege (my parents paid for my higher education, allowing me to be a small percentage of people to finish grad school without student loans). Trying to stretch my paycheck, I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I clipped coupons, shopped for food and clothes on sale, and did things like secret shopping to enjoy things like dining out (for the uninitiated: secret shopping is when a restaurant lets you dine for free in exchange for reviewing how the staff performs). I eagerly consumed personal finance books. I did everything in my power to be financially savvy. But my body didn’t care. I developed chronic insomnia, my previously in remission anxiety and depression came roaring back, and I was susceptible to every cold and flu, calling in sick or fighting through my days with DayQuil.
It didn’t make sense! I was doing everything as fiscally responsible as possible.
It wasn’t until a job opportunity with a 30% pay raise changed everything.
I landed a much better-paying job in my field. Within weeks of my first paycheck hitting my bank account, my insomnia started to resolve, the SSRI medication I’d been on finally began to take hold, and my immune system started healing.
It hit me: we can’t scrimp and save our way to financial health. We have to earn more money. As women, we are woefully behind our male counterparts regarding our earnings. Sure, the wage gap has narrowed (women now earn 83 cents on the dollar compared to men), but there is still a substantial financial disparity. The wage gap is even more significant when looking at Black, Asian, and Hispanic women; Black and Latina women stand to lose 1M dollars in earnings over their lifetimes due to the wage gap.
Circling back to my belief that we need to earn more money in a field that prioritizes being pious?
That makes you some hell of a pariah. Why would advocating for a living wage make you a pariah? Because the core values of social work are helping those in need and challenging social injustices, social workers tend to assume that “doing good work” and “making a good living” conflict with one another.
And that same take that can make me unpopular in some social work circles is the exact thing that makes me a great financial advocacy leader. I believe that when social workers practice financial self-care, it affords us the ability to be fully able to do the work we do. So when we can comfortably pay our bills, make our student loan payments, and save for our future, it frees up space in our brains to be completely present with our clients. And being completely present with our clients is embodying additional social work values, such as respecting the inherent dignity and worth of others, challenging social injustice, and helping those in need.
Since then, I’ve become an advocate of not just financial literacy but of advocating for thriving wages for social workers and allied mental healthcare professionals. When we are fairly compensated for our labor, we can volunteer or donate to causes that matter to us.
I’m consistent about the importance of being compensated well for our work on my podcast, social media channels, and email newsletter. This message isn’t about “making six figures” or “becoming a millionaire” like lots of money coaches claim; it’s about the ability to make enough money to take care of our needs and have enough left over to pour into the people and causes that matter.
And if you’re ready to practice financial leadership? I recommend starting with your financial well-being. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Review the last time you got a pay raise or raised your fees. If it’s been over a year, it’s time to negotiate a raise or raise your prices. (Because of a 7% inflation rate, if you haven’t gotten at least a 7% raise or increased your rates by 7%, you’ve effectively given yourself a pay cut)
- Create or update your spending plan. Most people fail to account for their expenses truthfully, especially perceived “one-off” expenses like repairing a vehicle or spending a bit more celebrating a loved one’s 40th birthday.
- Ensure that you are investing in your future by contributing to retirement accounts.
Financial leadership isn’t just standing on a stage (though it can be). It’s also daily conversations with others where you share what you believe in. It’s when you refuse to lower your fees or prices in business. It’s what happens when you only pay contractors and employees thriving wages. When you say “no” to a job that doesn’t pay you a thriving wage. It happens when you tell a mentee that they should advocate for a pay raise.
Financial leadership is something we should all embody.
Lindsay Bryan-Podvin is a social worker-turned-financial therapist, author, and speaker.
She is the Founder of Mind Money Balance, LLC where it helps you to discover what methods best work for you and your money.